That’s The Policy: Explaining the Rationale

By Olivia Buck

Communication is key in customer service, there’s no question about it. How we frame our interactions often directly correlates with how patrons respond. If we come at an issue focusing on what we can do instead of what we can’t, the conversation generally goes much smoother. When working at a service desk, especially one where dealing with fines, lost items, and damaged materials is so common, it can be easy to slip into the mode of giving what I like to call the “policy speech.” It sounds something like, “I’m sorry, our policy is x,” or “I cannot do y because of our policy.” However, I know there have been times when I wasn’t satisfied by the “that’s just our policy” response. I think in those situations, I would have really appreciated understanding why the policy worked that way and what effect that policy would have. Yet, I think we’re all guilty of saying “That’s our policy” at some point or another.

Once, soon after taking over as the Donation Day Coordinator, a first-time volunteer came up to me with arms full of books. They were in nearly-new condition, hardly even dusty.

“I think we should keep these; they look like they’re in great condition,” he said.

Upon giving them a closer look, I discovered that they were a set of encyclopedias from the 1970s. As a library worker, I have had to learn to squash my instinct to save every book that comes my way. Sometimes books come back to the library with various maladies, from torn-off covers to being scrawled on with permanent markers; sometimes there’s just no saving a book. At first, it felt wrong to pitch the books, but after a book came back covered in an unknown, oozy, sticky slime (complete with hair, crumbs, and another book stuck to it), it started to hurt a little less to discard damaged books. Often, my Donation Day volunteers also have to squish down the impulse to save all the books coming in, and they have much less time to get used to the idea of getting rid of books that the library cannot keep. This is especially difficult when the books seem like they are in good condition, but are too old or are items that become outdated very quickly, like the encyclopedias this volunteer wanted to save.

Understandingly, I explained, “Unfortunately, the library cannot keep encyclopedias because they become outdated too quickly.”

“But they’re like new!” he exclaimed, eyes widening in surprise. “We should definitely keep these.”

Again, I explained to him that the library wouldn’t be able to keep these. Our policy during Donation Day was to send on all encyclopedias to another facility to be recycled.

“But that makes no sense. Look at them. They’re like new. Somebody should keep them.”

Occasionally, I get volunteers who struggle to get rid of something, so this was already familiar territory for me. However, he was steadfast in his opinions and insistent. I tried not to feel impatient when he wouldn’t accept my answer, and clarified, “Unfortunately, the library can’t keep these books. Lots of things have changed since these books have come out and they are outdated. We wouldn’t be able to add them to our collection or sell them in our Book Shoppe.”

Again, he insisted that someone would want them.

I replied, “If you’d like to purchase them, you may do so. Otherwise, the library will not be able to keep these books and they should be sent on to be recycled.”

“Well, I don’t want them. What use would I have for them? But the library should keep them.”

At this statement, I was a bit at a loss for words. I’d used all the responses that had worked for me in the past, and I still hadn’t been able to convince him that these books could not stay at the library. I shuffled through all of the knowledge that I had about Donation Day and racked my brain for something that would help ease his conscience about letting these poor encyclopedia volumes go onto the next chapter of their lives. Eventually something sparked in my brain.

“Did you know that the library actually gets money back from the books that go on to be
recycled? These books would be best helping the library by going to the other facility.”

And there it was. The fight in his eyes faded and, with a grimace, he acquiesced. “Alright, I suppose that’s okay then.”

Reflecting on this incident afterwards, I realized that I had fallen into the trap of explaining policy instead of telling him how this was actually the best course of action. I walked away knowing that I had to find a new way of approaching this type of situation with volunteers. As a result, I implemented a new training plan which included explanations for why our policy is what it is and how that works out best for the library.

I have found that using this same approach in other situations has been helpful all around. Even if I say what the policy is, following it up with an explanation has made a huge difference in my conversations with both patrons and volunteers. My conversations often look more like “We handle it in this way because x,” or “Because of y, we have to do this.” I have found that most people appreciate hearing the whole story, not just the policy.

Making Changes: Donation Day

By Olivia Buck

When I became the Donation Day Coordinator for Bloomington Public Library, I had never attended a donation day prior to taking on the job and I had little idea of what to expect. I knew I would be the only library staff person working at donation day, managing and training several volunteers, while also acting as the main contact for any patrons at the event. The monthly donation day at my library is a fast-paced event where we’re constantly moving and shifting from one task to the next. Cars pull up to a side door in our parking lot where patrons honk their horns and we sweep outside with carts. Smiling, we greet our patrons while unloading their boxes from their cars. Bringing the boxes back inside, we sort the books out by condition. The books that we can keep are then sorted into genre and placed on carts that I wheel into another part of the library for further weeding and sorting later. The items that are outdated or in rough condition are placed in large, rolling bins which will be sent away for recycling.

Sometimes, patrons request tax receipts and I set about counting items and signing the receipt. All this to say, during donation day, our Community Room is like an anthill crawling with activity. After taking on the role of coordinator for the event, I realized that a few changes needed to be made to make our donation day work as efficiently as possible. Soon after one of my first months as coordinator of the event, I had a meeting with my manager to discuss how things went. I wasn’t sure if I could make changes to the event or if my manager would be receptive to my ideas. A bit nervously, I explained that I thought some changes needed to be made.

First, the hours weren’t working well for our patrons or volunteers. When I took over running the event, I knew that the donation day hours had recently been revised from lasting five hours in late morning to mid afternoon to three hours in the morning. However, patrons rarely arrived before 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Most of the time, it seemed that volunteers would have little to do for the first hour. Then an onslaught of cars would appear outside our doors at about 10 minutes till the end of the event… which was when all of my volunteers left. I’d often be left with a dozen giant boxes of books to sort, all by myself. Additionally, I was on a deadline to get out of the Community Room, because it had to be cleaned up and ready for events that took place immediately after I closed the doors for donations.

Luckily, this problem was easy to fix: change the hours. I knew that there would be some confusion on our patrons’ end since the hours had already been changed not long before, but I felt that the benefits would outweigh the costs. I proposed to the department manager that changing the hours again would be helpful. I also raised concerns about having so little time to get everything moved out of the Community Room after our event. With full support from my manager to make changes to the hours, we arranged to shift the hours to 10 am – 1 pm and to book the Community Room for the whole work day so that I would have more time to get everything sorted out.

The second problem was a bit more difficult to solve. My volunteers didn’t have enough training and I didn’t have enough time or help to make sure that they got the training they needed during the event. Prior to taking on the role of Donation Day Coordinator, I had experience training staff in the Circulation and Outreach Department, as well as having learned some great teaching techniques from my experiences as a peer consultant. However, training for donation day was quite the challenge. Unlike with library staff, volunteers may arrive at any point during the donation day shift. Which meant that, I often already had a heap of boxes to sort through and cars lined up outside waiting to be unloaded before I could even think about training. While training, sometimes information would be missed in the hecticness of the day and volunteers would jump into things before I could finish training them. In order to solve these problems, I created a training document to help with the flow of training and to keep on track. I also implemented volunteer training sessions prior to the start of the event. We recommended that first-time volunteers arrive thirty minutes before the beginning of the event for training. My manager listened patiently as I shared my ideas and readily agreed to try these things out.

Since making these changes, monthly donation days have run much smoother. There are much fewer slow periods during the day and the donations begin to wind down around the time that we close our doors. Volunteers who attend the pre-opening training have an easier time jumping into the event and know that they can come to me whenever they have questions. The training that they receive helps them to understand the bigger picture of what happens to the donated books as well as helps them make judgements on what we can and cannot keep. Donation day is still busy and requires a lot of hard work, but the improvements I was able to make with the help of my manager and other staff have made it run much smoother than it had in the past.